Chinati’s latest special exhibition is a conversation of Eastern abstraction and Western minimalism

Yun Hyong-keun (left) and Donald Judd (right) at Yun’s solo exhibition held in 101 Spring Street in New York, now Judd Foundation, New York, November 14, 1993. © Yun Seong-ryeol. Courtesy of the Estate of Yun Hyong-keun.

MARFA — It’s an early fall day, and three works by Korean artist Yun Hyong-keun have emerged from storage at the Chinati Foundation to be hung in the special exhibition building. The latest show, opening for Chinati Weekend, invites visitors to see Yun’s work, spare and naturalistic, alongside an installation of plywood boxes by Donald Judd.

Inside one of the barracks of the decommissioned Fort DA Russell that Donald Judd purchased in Marfa lies the special exhibition room. While six of the barracks house Dan Flavin’s untitled (Marfa project), 1996, this building is reserved for rotating special exhibitions at a compound most known for its permanent installations.

To Chinati Foundation Curator Ingrid Schaffner, the exhibition space is a way to bring out works of art in the foundation’s collection and “see them anew.” Last Friday, she walked the halls of the U-shaped building, talking about the plywood boxes as a prefiguration of Judd’s aluminum and concrete work and about the addition of Yun’s paintings to the space.

Donald Judd’s untitled works in plywood, 1978 have been installed in the building since 2019, where visitors can see 16 plywood boxes, all identical in their exterior measurements but completely unique in their interior forms. 

Prior to this show, they hadn’t been exhibited at Chinati for 20 years, and their current run was extended because the pandemic shuttered access to the works for many months. Breathing new life into the exhibit, Chinati Foundation chose to install Yun’s art alongside it for the 2021 Chinati Weekend.

The three newly installed works made by Yun in 1993 are hung in the midpoint between the plywood installation, at the bottom of the U-shaped building. Since viewers approach them from either the left or right, “You see the canvas edge wrapped around the stretchers, where paint is dripping down the sides,” Schaffner pointed out, revealing some of Yun’s process. Looking straight on at the works, she points to what’s almost “a negative tide,” she said, where Yun’s deeply layered strokes have pushed up on each other.

From the middle of the U-shaped building, viewers can shift their gaze from the raw linen and darkly painted fields of oil of Yun’s work, to the plywood grain of the wood in Judd’s untitled piece. Following that line of sight out the window, viewers can see the broader evolution of Judd’s works at Chinati.

Schaffner stood in the special exhibition and pointed toward the windows of the barrack, where visitors can see Judd’s plywood piece in the foreground, and, out the window, Judd’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, 1982–1986 in the artillery shed and his 15 untitled works in concrete, 1980–1984 in a nearby grassy field. The boxy shapes, iterative forms and use of material evolves and grows in size as his work progresses forward in time.

Within the U-shaped barrack, eight plywood boxes line each of the sides of the U, with Yun’s work offering a brief pause in between. The artist’s use of natural materials are well suited alongside the bare plywood grain of Judd’s boxes.

Yun’s artistic style derives from a scene of a felled tree that is decaying back into its mountainous landscape, its roots already dissolved, he explained in an early Chinati Newsletter from 1997. In making the work, his raw linen canvases were laid on the floor and the artist applied layers of glazes of pigment – burnt umber or ultramarine blue – to his linen surface.

“I choose to record every possible moment of life, to leave evidence of my existence so long as I breathe,” Yun wrote in the second volume of Chinati’s annual newsletter, published in 1997. “Nature always remains simple and fresh. And I wish, above all, that my paintings could communicate that simplicity and freshness.”

The results are muted, organic paintings, reminiscent of American painter Mark Rothko in the intensity of the brush strokes and depth of the color fields. But Schaffner is hesitant to try to fit Yun’s work within the confines of American minimalism. 

“I relate them to Rothko or abstractions I know, but also knowing there’s so much about other traditions of abstraction they relate to and reference and pull forth that one may want to learn about,” Schaffner said. In Korea, Yun was a part of the Dansaekhwa movement, where a major tenant of the movement was the manipulation of materials for painting.

By the 1990s, Judd was an artist and writer, cementing his legacy with the formation of his Chinati Foundation, and Yun was honing his practice into something like a diary, documenting his life in his work. At the same time, both were shrugging off the labels that the art world was eager to adhere to them. Regardless of the artists’ attempts to reject definition, Judd was squarely placed in the center of minimalism, while Yun was considered a leader of the Dansaekhwa movement.

When the pair met in Korea during Judd’s exhibition with Inkong Gallery in 1991, a relationship began that would last through the final years of Judd’s life. Judd praised Yun’s work, inviting him to exhibit it at 101 Spring Street in New York (now Judd Foundation) in 1993, and he planned an exhibition at Chinati Foundation for the following year. By the time it was installed in Marfa in 1994, Judd had passed away. In the wake of Judd’s death, Yun donated three of his works to the Chinati Foundation, and he kept art by Judd on the walls of his studio until his own passing in 2007.

Judd’s untitled works in plywood, 1978 and the three works by Yun are on view at Chinati Foundation through summer of 2022.